Law & Critique: On Arendt, Race and Lawbreaking

by | 8 Mar 2021

Hannah Arendt was conservative in more ways than one.[1] She valued the unprecedented, the unexpected, and the new,[2] yet in ‘Civil Disobedience’ and other essays crafted at the end of the rebellious 1960s, struggled to square this valuation with a palpable desire for law and order. She lamented that criminality had overtaken American life, accused the police of not arresting enough criminals (Arendt 1970, pp. 70–74), and charged ‘the Negro community’ with standing behind what she named black violence (Arendt 1969, p. 19). At the same time, she praised ‘the white rebels’ of the student movement in the United States for their courageous acts of disobedience. 

In a recent essay published by Law & Critique, I explore how differential Arendt’s treatment of lawbreaking action was.[3] This requires engagement with the conceptual distinctions she proposed—distinctions between power and violence, civil and criminal, politics and morality, opinion and interest—in an effort to understand how ‘certain sections of the population’ in the United States could appear to stand for criminality rather than civil disobedience in her mind. 

While the importance of Arendt as ‘one of the seminal thinkers of the twentieth century’ is now well established,[4] she has even acquired ‘saintly status’[5] in some scholarly milieux, especially in the United States. Nonetheless, groundbreaking scholarship culminating with Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question, published by the philosopher Kathryn T. Gines in 2014, has provided a systematic analysis of anti-Black racism in Arendt’s work.[6] In the essay mentioned above, I offer a critical interpretation of Arendt’s racialized reflections on civil disobedience in the late 1960s, focusing on a subject only cursorily explored by Gines.[7]

Like Gines, ‘I am not attempting to dismiss Arendt’s thought altogether and label her a racist’ (2014, p. 91). That, to my mind, would be less fruitful an endeavor than attempting to understand how Arendt’s reflections on the ostensibly non-racial subjects of civil disobedience and lawbreaking were underwritten by racial, when not racist—depending on one’s interpretation of this concept[8]—ways of thinking. If, as recently as 2018, a conference on ‘Citizenship and Civil Disobedience’ held at the Hannah Arendt Center in the United States can be introduced at length without observing how Arendt categorically excluded certain citizens, particularly the Black Power movement, from the zone of civil disobedience, this may still prove worthwhile an effort (see Berkowitz 2018).

On the other hand, I raise in this essay a larger question: to the extent that the concept of civil disobedience involves limits (imposed, among others, by the requirement of ‘civility’ and the presumption that a given state is fundamentally just), how are those limits drawn to the exclusion of certain kinds of actors and their particular claims in the public realm?[9] Pondering this question through Arendt, instead of concluding that she was ‘one of the most prescient observers of America’ (Berkowitz 2018) or the phenomenon of civil disobedience, we may learn from the ways in which she was profoundly limited—despite warnings offered by her contemporaries[10]—by the fabulous tale that the United States is an exceptional land of freedom and democracy in the world. In the end, it was political actors, racialized political actors, whose lawbreaking action challenged the foundational tales of American exceptionalism, whom Arendt barred from the category of civil disobedience.

In the late 1960s, Arendt’s constitutive, racialized contrast between the disinterestedness of the white rebels and the self-interestedness of the Black Power movement was intimately tied to her critique of violence.[11] Whereas the former group stood for ‘nonviolent “participatory democracy”’ and sought to build power, what the Black Power movement offered was, according to Arendt, ‘interests plus violence’ (Arendt 1969, p. 19). For Arendt, what the Black Power movement collectively held was not common opinion, but common interest, as if the latter did not require articulation, persuasion, consensus or agreement, and as if it could not, categorically, be driven by a disinterested passion for justice. Moreover, what the Black Power movement as an ‘interest group’ shared were particular interests given by a common and unchangeable ‘race’, while Arendt understood race, at least in this case, as ‘a fact of life’ (Arendt 1969, p. 76), as in ‘the organic and natural facts—[of] a white or black skin—which no persuasion or power could change’ (Arendt 1969, p. 76).[12] Is it surprising then that she would also find that ‘it is always the same story: interest groups do not join the rebels’ (Arendt 1969, footnote 39 on p. 23)—white rebels, let it be underscored, whose ‘revolutionary idea’, according Arendt, was disinterested ‘moral passion’ (Arendt 1969, footnote 39 on p. 23)?

Arendt’s strong rejection of affirmative action and the Black Power movement can be interpreted as an early articulation of contemporary—and categorical—objections to ‘identity politics’ on the grounds that it constitutes ‘reverse racism’, or else, a divisive form of politics. In this reading, Arendt would be prescient in having anticipated what Angela Davis diagnosed as the ‘post-Civil Rights era’ some 30 years after 1968, an era in which ‘race itself becomes an increasingly proscribed subject’:

In the dominant political discourse [race] is no longer acknowledged as a pervasive structural phenomenon, requiring the continuation of such strategies as affirmative action, but rather is represented primarily as a complex of prejudicial attitudes, which carry equal weight across all racial boundaries. Black leadership is thus often discredited and the identification of race as a public, political issue itself called into question through the invocation of, and application of the epithet ‘black racist’ …

(Davis 1997, p264

Perhaps, then, Arendt did not so much anticipate as she did participate in the very arrival of such a post-civil rights era in the United States—after all, she was already writing publicly about ‘Black racism’ in 1969 (Arendt 1969, p. 77). But are we still in this era, or not yet? In either case, is it not conceivable that Arendt would have seen in ‘All Lives Matter’ an antiracist opinion today, which assumes force—lawbreaking or not—against ‘Black Lives Matter’?

I argued in this essay in Law & Critique that Arendt’s thoughts about the ostensibly non-racial subjects of civil disobedience and lawbreaking were underwritten by racial, when not racist, modes of thinking. This should hardly be surprising, unless one would expect an exception in Arendt’s case, an exception from the white supremacism that engulfed political life in the United States long before and long after 1968. And why should Arendt have been immune from the racism of her time—both implicit and explicit—which permeated political thought across ‘Western civilization’, and whose supremacy she proudly expounded?[13] The answer lies in the vitality of antiracist thought and action in her own day, which she took pains to exclude from the zone of civil disobedience by naming them unpolitical manifestations of conscience, self-interest, and violence. 

[1] Many scholars concur with Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves (1994, p. 1) that Arendt ‘cannot be characterized in terms of the traditional categories of liberalism, conservatism and socialism’. Nevertheless, James Martel (2011, pp. 143–157) has studied Arendt as an anarchist thinker. While I agree with Hutchings (2017, p. 33) that one of the most remarkable things about Arendt’s work is ‘its capacity to unsettle comfort zones of ideological right/left thinking and the impossibility of incorporating it under any particular “ism”’, in this essay, I am interested in exploring Arendt’s (1970, p. 89) conservative tendencies (rather than Arendt as a conservative) in the context of the United States in the late 1960s, which she characterized as a ‘revolutionary situation’. I will return to this point in part III of this essay. Although limitations of space disallow a discussion, the wider historical context of the period under consideration is the Cold War and ‘the iconic year 1968’, which ‘marks the 1960s as a global moment’ (Marotti 2009, p. 97). For a careful reading of Arendt and her conceptualization of ‘totalitarianism’ in the context of the Cold War, see Losurdo (2004, pp. 25–255). I thank Sebastian Budgen for this reference.

[2] For an examination of the constitutive role of ‘the unprecedented’ in Arendt, see Çubukçu (2015, pp. 684–704). For an analysis of ‘the politics of the extraordinary’ in Arendt’s thought in relation to the perplexities of revolution, constitution making, action, and freedom, see Kalyvas (2008, pp. 70–74).

[3] I reflect on the problem of lawbreaking in the case of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1994) in another essay, Çubukçu (2015).

[4] See Passerin d’Entrèves (2019). Craig Calhoun and John McGowan offer an informative narrative of what was once Arendt’s wavering prominence in the US academy, from the 1950s through 1996. See Calhoun and McGowan (1997). In contrast, note how an endorsement for John McGowan’s book, Hannah Arendt: An Introduction (1998) already declares in 1998 that the book is a welcome addition to ‘the growth industry known as Arendt studies’. For my earlier contributions to this ‘industry’, see Çubukçu (20152017).

[5] I thank Nathaniel Berman for this formulation.

[6] See the publisher’s summary of Gines (2014), Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question on the back cover of the book and on its website. For earlier work exploring anti-Black themes in Arendt which later scholarship built on, see Dossa (1980, pp. 309–323) and Norton (1995, pp. 247–262).

[7] Unfortunately, Gines (2014, pp. 120–122) considers Arendt’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ very briefly.

[8] While examining the immense debate about what racism does and does not entail is beyond the scope of this essay, considering Arendt, I will return to this question in part III. For an effort to develop ‘philosophical methodologies for (re)conceptualizing race and racism’ beyond the black/white binary in the context of the United States, see Critical Philosophy of Race (2013). For a revealing survey of ‘(white) Western intellectuals’, particularly Arendt’s contemporaries from Germany, which historically situates—if not excuses—Arendt’s views on ‘race and culture’, see King (2010, pp. 113–134).

[9] I thank both Partha Chatterjee and Tobias Kelly for teasing out this question in their comments on an earlier version of essay. See Kelly’s (Thiranagama et al. 2018) co-authored piece on ‘civility’ for a critical, anthropological approach to this concept and its operations. For a contemporary ‘defense of uncivil disobedience’, even in ‘supposedly legitimate, liberal democratic states’, see Delmas (2018), particularly chapter two.

[10] For a review of ‘the opportunities Arendt had to engage with Black intellectuals about the Negro question’, see Gines (2014, pp. 3–7). For an account of Arendt’s exchange with James Baldwin, see Caver (2019, pp. 35–61). For an exclusive focus on Arendt’s German contemporaries, ‘who spoke of racial and crosscultural matters in ways remarkably similar to, or even more ethnocentric than Arendt’, see King (2010, p. 114).

[11] For an excellent overview of Arendt’s understanding of violence in relation to power, and how the two are ‘essentially antithetical in principle’, see Hutchings (2017). Also see the unsparing critique by Gines (2014) of Arendt’s ‘double-sided approach to violence’ whereby Arendt ‘presents violence uncritically in some contexts’, including in The Jewish Writings, and ‘hypercritically in other contexts’, especially when she considers anti-colonial struggles. Patricia Owens (2009, p. 1 and especially pp. 13–33) examines how ‘we also find in Arendt’s work praise for the experience of war as the quintessential moment for humans to be most fully alive and political’.

[12] This understanding of ‘race’ as an organic and natural fact, which ‘no persuasion or power could change’ complements Arendt’s (1958) assertion in The Origin of Totalitarianism that ‘our political life rests on the assumption that we can produce equality through organization, because man can act in and change and build a common world, together with his equals and only with his equals. The dark background of mere givenness, the background formed by our unchangeable and unique nature, breaks into the political scene as the alien which in its all too obvious difference reminds us of the limitations of human activity— which are identical with the limitations of human equality’ (Arendt 1973, p. 301), emphasis added. See also Michiel Bot (2019).

[13] Note how Richard H. King claims that Arendt never ‘elevate[d] Western thought and culture above the other great world cultures’ (2010, p. 133). Nevertheless, Butler (2007) is clear about the supremacism which inflected Arendt’s thought: ‘A presumption about the cultural superiority of Europe pervades much of her later writings too, and is clearest in her intemperate criticisms of Fanon, her debunking of the teaching of Swahili at Berkeley, and her dismissal of the black power movement in the 1960s. She clearly does not have racial minorities in mind when she thinks about those who suffer statelessness and dispossession. She appears to have separated the nation from the nation-state, but to the degree that the conception of “minorities” is restricted to national minorities, “nation” not only eclipses “race” as a category, but renders race unthinkable’.


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